5 Ways to Use Off-Camera Light on a Wedding Day with Justin Haugen
Weddings are commonly acknowledged as one of the toughest specialties of photography. You’re confronted with rapidly changing lighting conditions and are tasked with documenting authentic moments artistically, while under major time constraints. You’ve got a good wedding day workflow under your belt, but now you realize it’s time to add something new to your toolkit that is going to separate your images from the competition and help you overcome difficult lighting situations. In this article, I’m going to share with you 5 techniques to help take your wedding photography to the next level.
Before we begin, let’s talk gear. Every image I share is possible in some form with your average speedlight. We’re living in the golden era of off-camera lighting options and we’ve come a long way from pricey first-party options that cost as much as modern day strobes. In most of my examples I’m using a flash that is three times more powerful and efficient as a speedlight, but rarely am I operating the flash at full power. My objective is to keep the gear as minimal as possible and have it hand-holdable so it can be carried and manipulated easily. Even if you’re working with an entry level speedlight, you should be able to achieve similar results.
It’s also essential that we modify the light to achieve our creative objectives. When I work with OCF, my objective is to keep the light compartmentalized to my subjects by minimizing spill with a MagMod grid. I also prefer a round light pattern by using a MagMod Sphere. Some speedlights even have a round head like the ProFoto A1. Lastly, I like the option of adding color into my images, so my MagMod Gels play a big part in my creative lighting setups.
My best piece of advice to you on a wedding day is to employ the help of an assistant. Not only will they help you wrangle gear you’re bound to leave behind as you move from space to space, but they can also hand hold a flash and point it at intended subjects quickly. When photographing people, I tell assistants to draw an imaginary line from the middle of the flash to the eyes of my subjects and to keep the light slightly above eye level as a starting point. I always want the hottest part of the light to hit dead center on my subject’s eyes. This way the light pattern will transition to darkness as it moves away from their face and you’ll have this pleasing effect of spotlighting your subjects while keeping unnecessary spill from reaching the floor or nearby objects. The closer your light is to your subjects, the tighter the light pattern will appear.
With an assistant on-hand and a flash in-hand, you’re going to breeze through detail photos. Typically we’re shooting indoors for the preparation portion of the wedding day, and you’ll be battling already dim conditions compared to shooting outdoors. These are ideal conditions for using OCF to highlight details in these dimmer conditions. I love to position lights in more creative ways that you don’t typically observe with natural light.
Instead of a filled-in scene with light striking every surface in the frame, we can position a flash directly overhead and just out of frame to get a dramatic top-down lighting effect as if a light fixture is hanging over this table. Add a MagSphere or use a flash with a round head to achieve a pleasing circular light pattern.
When performing macro photography for detail shots of the rings, the light placement is very close to your subject so you can achieve very narrow apertures and at your max sync speed. In the ring shot above, the flash is just out of frame with a MagSphere. Even at an ISO of 80 with an aperture of F/11 and shutter speed of 1/250th, I can shoot at a relatively low power with a faster recycle. When shooting macro images, your focal plane is very thin so a slight breath can throw off your focus from your initial moment of capture. Because of this, I tend to rapid fire these ring shots hand held, making a fast recycle even more critical.
One of my objectives when using off-camera flash is to reference ambient lighting in the scene and mimic it with my OCF. If I do a good job, the light I’ve introduced into the scene is believable and I can convince the viewer that the light was there all along.
Shooting at daylight white balance during golden hour will produce warm tones in your images, but our flashes are very close to daylight white balance so the tones they produce tend to be very neutral. By adding a ½ CTO or ½ straw gel, I can mimic the glow of golden hour and produce light on my subjects that matches the scene.
Using a red creative gel on a second light positioned to the right and slightly behind the couple, I’m able to reference the red glow emitting from the neon sign. The couple was about 40 feet from the sign, much too far to get the actual glow of neon to reach them in this scenario. With considerate placement and gel use, we can still reference the light in the scene as a critical part of the creative result.
Smoke and Spray
If you really want to kick things up a notch, remember that any particulates in the air between the camera and a flash pointed toward it will catch light. With practice, you can get some fun and creative effects. Think hair spray, perfume, champagne, or cigar smoke. These are all things you’re likely to encounter on a wedding day, and they all make for some intriguing effects.
Bridal prep is a great time to take risks like this. Give yourself plenty of time to experiment on a wedding day and show up early to bridal prep. I like to ask the hair stylist and makeup artist when they’ll be using hair spray or makeup setting spray, and ask that they give me a heads up so I can position light.
I’ll position a flash with MagGrid at least 3 feet behind the bride, and then I position the flash head to aim for the area in front of the bride’s head. I use a grid here to keep the light pattern tight and just around the head of the bride. You’ll want to underexpose for the ambient light at least a stop so that when you introduce the flash into the shot, the effect it has on the exposure will be apparent. Because we’re in tight quarters with the flash relatively close to your subject, you should be able to pull off lower power flash pops, allowing you to rapid fire through the duration of the shot so you can choose the best frame later.
As an added bonus, if you manage to get a conveniently placed stylist’s arm in front of the bride, or if you get enough spray in that area, you’ll get some nice light bounce-back onto the bride’s face. After observing this unintended effect over several weddings, I started to give the stylists some guidance on hand placement and where to spray so I could achieve this effect on purpose.
Another low-pressure time to experiment with OCF is when the groomsmen step outside for a celebratory cigar. In this image, I positioned a flash with MagSphere and a lime creative gel behind the groom and pointed toward the camera. With careful positioning, I was able to block the view of the flash. I asked the guys to “light ‘em up” and puff incessantly. After a few test frames I decided the groom needed just a kiss of light to his face to highlight him as the most important part of the image. Just out of frame and to the left of the groom, I positioned a flash with two MagGrids stacked on top of each other. This narrowed the pattern of light to just a sliver of an area around his head and upper shoulder. The key here being that I didn’t allow any light to spill on the groomsmen just behind him.
An early wedding photography trick for natural light shooters is to underexpose your subjects while bringing out rich tones in a killer sunset, leaving two intimately silhouetted figures in the foreground. With OCF you can silhouette anywhere.
The formula is simple:
- Position the flash behind the subjects.
- Point the flash toward a nearby (or not-so-nearby) background surface.
- Underexpose the ambient light.
- Trigger the flash.
When I saw this incredible mansion the day before the wedding, I told my friend, “I’m going to light the entire mansion up with one light.” I positioned the couple several hundred feet from the mansion and the flash was positioned about 20 feet behind them low on the ground and pointing upward toward the mansion. I had a magenta creative gel in the gel holder of the MagSphere. I chose the MagSphere for this situation because it allowed for a wider spread of light, and I’d need all the reach I could get to have the colored light spread to every inch of the mansion.
An unintended effect of using the MagSphere was that I also had light spilling out of the back of the sphere, casting ungelled light toward the couple and making for a beautiful rim light, haloing their bodies. I love giving couples fairytale moments at the end of a long wedding day. It’s the perfect way to impress your clients just before you make your exit.
Pro tip: Michael Anthony of Michael Anthony Photography told me his secret to getting these types of photos with no stand visible in the shot. Have the bride or groom hold the flash in hand and pointed toward the wall. With a little guidance on positioning, you can get a perfect silhouette anywhere!
Hiding Light in Plain Sight
We’re not just photographers on a wedding day, we’re artists. Give yourself some creative license to make something special, even if it means stepping out of your comfort zone with a little post-processing.
I love to shoot environmentally. My number one objective when photographing couples in a big scene is to make sure they’re the first thing the viewer sees when they look at the image. Because speedlights are underpowered compared to strobes, they may not have the reach to effectively light your subjects in a scene. Also consider that the further you move your lights from your subjects, the spread of light will grow. If your goal is to have tight and compartmentalized light with little spill, you’ll often find you need to keep the light closer to your subjects.
How do we achieve this effect when we’re shooting large scenes? The easiest answer is that we can creatively position our subjects in a frame and use nearby objects or obstructions to block the view of the light. The difficult approach is that we simply don’t even hide the light at all. With a little light-handed cloning and healing work in Photoshop, we can zap a flash, light stand, and assistant out of an image with relative ease. Frame your images with this process in mind and you’ll minimize the post process work you loathe.
Another easy method is to shoot one frame with your assistant/light in the shot, and then have them leave the photo entirely and take a second image. If you’re working without an assistant, you can have your subjects grab the light stand and walk it out of the subsequent shot. You won’t even need a tripod for this. Just be mindful of keeping the focus point in the same location for the photo and you’ll easily be able to bring both images into the same Photoshop workspace, select both layers, and auto-align layers under the edit dropdown in Photoshop. Position the assistant/light stand layer on top of the blank layer in the layers palette. Click on the add layer mask button for the top layer and then select the paint brush tool and the black color in the palette. You’ll paint in the black mask over the light and erase it away, revealing the blank layer below. If all of this sounds like too much to tackle yourself, you can always send it off to Evolve for a Signature Edit.
Now that you’ve read 5 different ways to approach your off-camera lighting on a wedding day, it’s imperative you get out and practice. You can easily practice these concepts on regular objects around the house or on a planned practice session with one or two people. Some of these concepts are easier to pull off than others, and with great planning and preparation, you can allot yourself the time to experiment on a wedding day. Introduce off-camera flash slowly at first, while leaning on your natural light work to get the safe shots. Once you feel confident you have a strong body of natural light work to lean on, you’ll have less pressure on you should your OCF images not work out. I make a point to not show the back of the camera images to couples if I’m not confident in the end result. The last thing I want to deal with is a couple feeling like they are missing images you showed them on their wedding day.